From grass to glass

Place Kunia
Text Randy Wong
Art Will Caron

Standing amid a field of sugarcane on the elevated slopes of the Wai‘anae mountain range at Kunia Country Farms in west-central O‘ahu, one can see the entirety of Honolulu’s urban corridor, from Waipahu all the way to Diamond Head, which is just a hazy postage stamp way off in the distance. The farm sits on 12 acres of old Del Monte pineapple land and, until recently, was known mostly for its deep-water culture and aquaponic system, growing tilapia as well as head lettuce and other leafy greens. But just beyond the aquaponic troughs and over a steep red hill grows a field of dreams. Over 50 unique sugarcane plant varietals form the basis of Hawai‘i’s next major export: Hawaiian agricole rum.

The canefield is part of a collection owned by Robert Dawson and Jason Brand, co-founders of Manulele Distillers, a new company with a concept and a philosophy that aims to make a huge impact on the rum industry worldwide. The duo originally looked to sugarcane for a new renewable energy source, but were struck by the taste and versatility of Hawai‘i’s cane varietals. Other Hawai‘i companies have made rum, but Manulele Distillers’ is the islands’ first to be made in the French “rhum agricole” style with fermented sugarcane juice extracted from single varietals and exposed to locally-grown cacao yeast.

Unlike sugar plantations of yore, pesticide-intensive operations whose repeated burning of cane often degraded soil and reduced air quality through smoke and soot, Manulele’s farming practices are clean and ecologically responsible. After the cane is harvested and crushed, it is brought back to the fields and used as fertilizer. The brand name KōHana is reflective of this philosophy: translated, it means “the work of the sugarcane,” pointing to the distiller’s appreciation for the context of cane in Hawai‘i and the uniqueness and individuality of Hawaiian varietals.

“Each of these varietals grow differently,” says KōHana brand manager Kyle Reutner as we push through 6-foot-plus, sharp blades of cane. Some are light green with a white stripe; one is very skinny and shimmering purple; another looks like thick, hairy bamboo. The diversity of these plants is both impressive and surprising. Surely if they look different, they must taste differently too.

Sugarcane is an important part of Hawai‘i’s history. According to Reutner, all cane share an ancestral home in Papua New Guinea, dating back some 3,000 years ago. About 1,000 years ago, about a dozen varietals made their way to Hawai‘i with early Polynesian settlers. Centuries later, European settlers would transplant other cane types across empires. In particular, cane was heavily imported into the Caribbean, where the giant grass species became a major cash crop for colonial powers.

In Hawaiian culture, sugarcane’s importance transcends its value as a commodity. Like other native crops, kō has mythological properties, and is personified in various characters and legends. Hawaiians used Manulele’s namesake varietal (translation: “flying bird”) in traditional love rituals as it was believed to aid in the return of lost lovers. Kamehameha the Great is said to have brought cane along on his campaigns, instructing his soldiers to plant the grass along supply routes to use as a source of nourishment, as a digestif, and even for dental hygiene.

Most of the cane used in Hawai‘i’s plantation-era refineries weren’t the canoe or “chewing” varietals that Kamehameha enjoyed, however. By the early 20th century, scientists had created a hybrid cane with sturdy properties (such as a low juice-to-sugar ratio) that could easily be processed by refinery machines. This hybrid, known as H-109, was an especially big cash crop in the ‘Ewa and Kunia regions on O‘ahu, eventually becoming the predominant production cane and effectively driving out natively-grown varietals.

KōHana brand manager Kyle Reutner leads Summit on a tour of the Manulele cane fields.

From Grass to Glass

Agricole-style rum distillation is a different animal, however. Because agricole rums are made from fermented cane juice, canes with a higher juice-to-sugar ratio are preferable. Additionally, Manulele uses proprietary yeast, locally grown from Hawaiian cacao, in its fermentation process. Full fermentation takes as many as seven days—an eternity compared to processes used by other distillers. As a comparison, most funky, edgy, Jamaican pot-stilled rums are fermented in just half that time. The extra fermentation time helps Manulele’s varietals to achieve a full spectrum of tasting notes that range from floral and citrusy to earthy and vanillin.

Manulele was the first varietal Dawson and Brand identified, and it’s the varietal being used for much of the distillery’s initial line of rum. Manulele has a clean, bright flavor, with light notes of jasmine and spring—instantly refreshing.

Noah Brown, Manulele’s distillery manager, oversees the entire production process. A typical harvest contains 4 tons of cane. That cane is crushed mechanically and, in a single pass, yields approximately 500 gallons of juice. From there, the juice is fermented for nearly a week, resulting in a sugarcane wine with a typical alcohol by volume (ABV) of about 11 percent. But, most importantly, that wine is then distilled using a hybrid alembic still, which allows for a uniquely robust, single-pass distillation.

A newly-opened tasting room stands where Kunia Country Farm’s former Plantation General Store once stood. When Summit visited, Reutner introduced us to three expressions of the rums, each bottled according to proof. Kea is the base expression, cut to 80 proof (40 percent ABV), and will be the entry point for most tasters. Koho is Manulele’s “barrel select” expression, with a slightly higher ABV, at 86 proof. The last expression, Koa, is barrel strength, meaning that the spirit is uncut, and the strength varies depending on the particular barrel. The Koa barrels we tasted from ranged between 110 and 122 proof. For now, the only place you can try these rums is at the distillery itself.

“We’re the island we are because of sugarcane,” Reutner says. “This place is so unique because of it. People who have lived here their entire lives have never seen this; we’re going to try to change that. It’s important for them to see how we go from grass to glass.”


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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